I’m writing this for artists. If you’re at a point where it doesn’t feel right, isn’t working, you’re lacking inspiration, I want to give you this piece of advice; walk away. Just walk away. That may sound counter intuitive to everything you’ve heard or felt but, if you’re stuck, I encourage you to walk away.
I’m an actor. Was an actor. Am an actor again. I studied, trained and have worked in a variety of venues from theme parks to Shakespeare festivals, from film and TV to voice over and commercials. I am not famous, that was never the goal. If that were to happen I wouldn’t mind at all however, I didn’t get into this thinking, I’m going to be famous. I got into this hoping I could be a working actor. I am a working actor. Those in the business know this term and understand that it’s not a bad place to be. I pay my bills, fund my entertainment, buy my bourbon by acting. I’ve done it for about 30 years and it was wonderful. Then it wasn’t.
A Working Actor
Let me explain the working actor thing for those of you who are not in the business or don’t have a connection to it. We see movie stars on screens and sometimes we see them on stage. We see stories about them in the news and images of them in fine fashion on carpets of red and in sleek cars and swanky houses. That may be the only image you have of actors. But, it’s a very limited view.
There are actors, good actors, great actors, inspiring actors all over the country who never achieve national fame. There are fine actors in your local theaters, in regional theaters all over the country. These actors are working actors meaning, they go to rehearsal, put up the show, run the show and move on to the next gig.
Now and then, they may get a role in a film, a guest shot on a TV show and that’s great. Most of the time working actors spend their lives going to auditions, (many, many auditions), getting cast, doing the job and going on to the next job. If you get three or four plays a year, maybe a few guest shots, a few small films, or, wow, a national commercial, then you’re doing well. You’re getting insurance, your pension is being paid into and you don’t have to do a day job. That’s the goal of the working actor. They’re everywhere and they are the backbone of the American theater. I have been very lucky to count myself among them for a long, long time.
It Just Wasn’t Working Anymore
Photo Credit: Nick Hidalgo
One day, it changed. I’m not 100% sure of what triggered it, I’m not sure of exactly why it happened but, one day it just didn’t work any longer. The joy I got from starting a new show, doing a rehearsal, discovering the depths of a character, creating a life with other actors, wasn’t fun. It was frustrating and making me angry. I was coming home from rehearsal and complaining to my bathroom mirror about this actor or this director.
First I stopped being generous in scenes, then I stopped listening. I was just angry all the time. My agent was sending me on auditions and I was giving excuses why I couldn’t do them. I had no real excuse, I just didn’t feel like standing in the room, reading what I thought were poorly written scripts and hopingfor the three line gig in a bad movie. Everything that I enjoyed about being an actor was making me angry and lost. I was making myself sick, and as a result I caused the actors I worked with some level of pain.
“Why not stop?” a dear friend asked me and my reply was interesting, if only to me. I didn’t say “No, I can’t.” I didn’t say “No, it will get better”. I said, “You know, I have good mind to do just that, just stop and see what happens.” I didn’t understand the sheer arrogance of that statement until a few months later but, it was symptomatic of how I was feeling at the time.
The real reason I didn’t want to stop, even though it was clearly killing me, was because I didn’t know who I would be. For most of my life I was an actor. People at parties would ask that terrible question; “So, what do you do?” and I was always ready with “I’m an actor.” I defined myself, my existence, my very being with the phrase; “I’m an actor”. If I stopped, who, what would I be? I also had this stupid notion that if I stopped the theater world would crumble without me. Let me stress again, I am not famous so, if I stopped nothing would happen. I just didn’t want to believe that.
Then, it just got to be too much. I stopped because I was too angry, too unhappy, too sick. I called my agent and told her I was stepping away. No one else knew, I just stopped. I did what my parents had always wanted me to do, I got a “real” job and I started living a very different life.
Photo Credit: Austin Chan
I noticed two things immediately; one; I was a lot less angry. And two; nobody gave a rat’s puckered ass that I quit. No one called and begged me to return. No theaters closed and put up signs saying: due to my retirement this theatre sees no reason to continue on. Movies were made, plays were produced and no one cared that I had quit. Oh, I was upset at first, how could they and don’t they know who I am, what I have done?
After a few months I really started to enjoy going to an office and doing a regular job. I liked having full weekends off. Actors usually get one day off per week. I liked being in my apartment all the time and not having to go off to a theater for 8 weeks and then come back and then go. The holidays were enjoyable, I liked spending the time with people I knew and not cobbling together an “orphans” Thanksgiving because I was on the road. I enjoyed having the life I had always shunned and avoided because I was an actor and being an actor meant you have rules. An actor does this and an actor sacrifices that and …. Blah. I realized, just like no one really caring that I quit, that no one had imposed these spartan rules about acting on me, but me.
A Year Off
I had given myself a time frame. I had decided that I would step away for a year. That was a big deal. I had never gone more than a month without a gig so, a full year was going to be tough. After the first few months, I didn’t miss it. I spent time with people who weren’t actors and had nothing to do with the business. I read a lot more. I learned a new skill. I got a steady paycheck. I went places on weekends. I lived a very different life.
Now and then I wondered if I’d ever go back, wondered if a year away would make me forget everything I had known but, those were fleeting thoughts. When I met new people and they asked what I did I would answer; “When” or “Why, what have you heard?” Sometimes I’d say something like, “Well, last night, I took this cooking class.” I stopped defining myself as my job, as an actor, as a profession. It was great. I felt free I felt new— I felt human.
I had told my boss my story when he first hired me and I let him know about my one year timeline. He was fine with that. When my year was almost up, out of the blue, I got a call from a director I had worked with several times and he asked me to do a show with him. I surprised myself with my initial response. I said, “I’d have to think about it, I have a regular job and I really don’t know if I could act again”. He was as surprised as I was. Normally, I would have said yes before I even heard the full offer. I have to think about it was not at all what he was expecting. I talked with my boss and he said the greatest thing; “Why can’t you do both?”
“Why Can’t You Do Both?”
Simple question but one, a year ago, I would never have entertained. Do both? Well, if I did both what would I be? Would I be an actor or a copywriter? Do I have to redefine my title. Would I have to do one of those, well, I’m really an actor but right now … things? All the things that would have hung me up a year before suddenly didn’t matter. I asked, can I work remotely, he said yes, I called the director, took the gig and that was that.
Photo Credit: Peyman Naderi
I was thrilled to be back in the room. Rehearsals were enjoyable again. I was happy to be back, exploring, creating and acting again. The big difference, I didn’t define myself as my profession any more. It made things easier. It made me happier. I wasn’t holding on so tight, I wasn’t keeping myself to some unwritten set of demands that I had to adhere to to be an actor. I was just doing it.
When the contract ended I returned to my office and it was great. I was happy to be back, happy to have done the show. I was happy. That was something I had missed, being happy. Shortly after my return I called my agent and she put me back in rotation. I went back to auditioning, feeling much more free, much more present. I was no longer getting crazy over the quality of scripts or the behavior of other actors, I was just present and happy to be so.
Walking away from my art was the best thing I have ever done in my life. Stepping away fully, starting a completely new career, not defining myself by my occupation, was healing and eye opening. I learned more about myself, what I was capable of, what I had limited myself to and what I wanted, than I ever imagined. I’m acting again. At the time of writing this, I’m getting ready to head off to do “Waiting for Godot”. I’m still working as a copywriter as well. I’m not defining myself as one thing. My acting is better. I am happier and I am curious in rehearsal again. I love the art again. And, I didn’t lose a step. All my training and time didn’t just vanish. I wasn’t starting from square one, but I was feeling like a student again and that is wonderful.
Walk away. Just leave it for a month, six months, a year. Do something else. Find out who you really are when you don’t define yourself as your occupation. Don’t worry, it will be there when you return. The world will be there. You’ll recognize it but, you may not recognize yourself.
Photo Credit; Hailey Kean @keanyefoto
Paul Kiernan is a writer/actor/eater of foods. He lives in Salt Lake City, and when he’s not acting he hangs his hat at ThoughtLab.